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posted: 8/27/2016 7:41 AM

What is the 'Daddy' meme, and why are adults fighting about it?

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This is part of an occasional series in which we explain internet things. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon an image macro, hashtag, app or GIF you don't understand, we have the answers -- insofar as answers can be had.

The meme: "Daddy"

What it means

It definitely doesn't mean "father." Let's get that out up front.

But the slang endearment, popular on Twitter and Instagram (among other platforms), is usually meant to communicate respect/adoration to a male authority figure. The female equivalent, needless to say, is "mom." Writing on her Tumblr in November 2014, the then-18-year-old singer Lorde explained the meme this way:

"Among the youthz (it's) a compliment; it basically jokingly means "adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic."

This isn't entirely family friendly, though -- the meme frequently has a sexual tinge. You probably wouldn't "daddy"/"mom" someone you didn't find attractive. In March, GQ attempted to quantify the most-daddied celebrities on Twitter, and basically ended up with the Teen Choice Awards' male hottie list: Zayn Malik, Drake and the Biebs are all daddied pretty often.

Where it started

This very particular, laudatory use of daddy -- and there are others, more on that in a sec -- has its roots in the teenage fan internet. It was arguably Lorde's 2014 "mom" tweet to Kim Kardashian that alerted adults to the term. Since then, it's remained popular among teens, ironic adults, and a sect of ... die-hard Trumpians.

If you want to talk about the longer history of the word "daddy," however, that's a bit more ... complex. Eve Peyser suggests that it's linked to the phrase "daddy issues" and some larger, more incestuous questions. In a recent feature for Mel, Alana Levinson traces the sexualization of daddy back through both popular music and kink culture. Here's how Levinson explains the connection between BDSM and the modern Daddy meme:

"It's easy to forget that term, for all its ubiquity, is also an actual sexual fetish. '(Using the term Daddy) is like BDSM-lite, and gives you the right amount of semi-roleplay without having to go the leather route or engage in a full-on immersive role-play,' an anonymous 28-year-old woman explained to me.

"In this context, 'daddy' is a gateway to exploring the dominant/submissive dynamic, which doesn't always need to be overtly sexual. It can be funny, playful or just weird."

Not everyone thinks this context is "funny" or "playful," however. On Aug. 20, the internet rabble-rouser Shanley Kane argued in a series of profanity-laced tweets that the term "daddy" originated in marginalized queer subcultures, and that its use outside those cultures was "appropriating." That sparked a whole lot of outraged, mocking and occasionally threatening responses under the hashtag #daddygate.

Kane later acknowledged that a lot of different subcultures use the word "daddy," so we're happy to shelve that whole debate.

How to use it like you know what you're doing

Are you over 17? Well then maybe ... don't. If you are old enough to think through the possible political and psychosexual implications of "Daddy," you are also old enough to reach for a thesaurus.

Alternately, you can bust out the teenage compliment as a form of ironic/subversive critique (!!). This ground is well-tread and sort of exhausting, especially in the wake of #daddygate, but if you're reading this I imagine you're behind anyway.

A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party

BDSM parallels aside, the "Daddy" meme has precious little to do with dads. It's a commentary on hero-worship and power dynamics -- and sometimes, a way of reversing them. Here's Peyser writing in New York mag:

"A grown woman says daddy with intention, self-assurance, and lots of cynicism. We claimed "daddy" as our own, which allows us to gently mock the patriarchal structures we're playing into. The daddy joke is that we have control over the way we manifest 'daddy'; that we could, one day, even become our own daddy."

I think we can agree this was all much more fun when it belonged to the teens.

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